• Steven A. Smith

The Dogs of Ophir, Colorado

Alaskan Malamute

The old mining town of Ophir, Colorado is famous for its dogs, at least it was in 1998-99 when I lived there for much of a year. Once a booming mining town, Ophir remains the quiet, forgotten enclave compared to its more popular and well know neighbor, Telluride. Oddly enough, Ophir has an East Ophir and West Ophir despite its very small size (159 residents according to 2010 census). But Ophir was much larger than it is today; many of its original buildings have crumbled. East and West Ophir now consist of a motley mix of old miner's houses, log cabins, and opulent modern homes. Ophir was once attractive to those who wanted out of Telluride's density and celebrity laced population that circulates year round for skiing adventures, film festivals, bluegrass festivals, etc. Ophir became a haven for those who wanted even more isolation than Telluride. Which says a great deal, as Telluride is one of the most isolated ski resorts in the the United States.

The quieter and more isolated environment in Ophir makes for a dog paradise. Is it possible to have too much freedom? One would think not; for the dogs of Ophir, it was heaven. As long as one could avoid being sprayed by skunks, quilled by porcupines, or infested by ticks, all the dogs who lived there during my brief sojourn roamed free day and night. No fenced yards, no chains, and absolutely none of them were confined indoors. In spring, summer, winter, or fall, this pack of canines was free to do as it wished. This was a blessing for me, but over time it was a challenge for all my four legged friends. Many of them were neglected, as residents would even leave them unattended for days, assuming other residents would care for them

I made more dog friends than human friends while living in Ophir for which I am forever grateful. Being a solitary beast myself, the dog pack environment forced me to be social every day. Especially on my days off when I tended to remain in Ophir rather than gravitate back to Telluride. During the week, I would work at a French restaurant called La Marmotte prepping and cooking into the early morning. But on most mornings and free days, I would venture into the mountains and try to hike as close to the sky as possible.

On each morning and most afternoons off, I would embark on a hike into woods and up the old mining roads and paths for my daily dose of heaven. Living in West Ophir usually forced me through East Ophir as I began my route. Initially as I left my little studio apartment, a few of the dogs jumped up from their porches and other snoozing places to join me. Over time they would be waiting for me. And as I meandered through town, more and more dogs would join the pack. Eventually when I arrived at the edge of the forest, I would be accompanied by anywhere from ten to twenty dogs of various shapes and sizes, all wiggling and playful to be together and going on an adventure. I loved it.

Two particular dogs stand out in my memory more than any others: Mingus and Sasso. Mingus lived in the house below the studio apartment I rented. This very small abode was perched on top of the larger house below. A long, rickety wooden stair case led from the dirt road up to the front door. I would leave the door open during the summer nights. Many mornings I would wake up to find Mingus or other dogs stretched out on the brown shag carpet below my loft. Mingus became my closest friend. He received very little attention from his owners, so I filled in and became his new guardian. Often, on cold mornings, he would walk on the roof and stare in my window to see if I was home. I would then let him in to warm up as I prepared for the day's hike. A noble German Shepard, Mingus had a playful twinkle in his eye which eluded most dogs of that breed.

Sasso was a purebred Alaskan Malamute and the strongest dog I have ever met in my life. He would run from his home a good mile away in order to join our excursions. Somehow, he always knew the exact departure time. On the hottest of summer days, when many of the dogs would turn around early on our hikes, Sasso would sprint up the steepest grades in order to connect with the last remaining patch of snow. There, he would sit panting before rolling in and biting the icy crystals. It took a lot of encouragement to have him leave the snowy remains. He would then descend the mountain with the same powerful excitement as his ascent, creating his own trail by thundering over scree and logs and through underbrush and ferns. In the winter, he would push through feet of powder snow, blazing a trail for the rest of the entourage. Being the largest in the group, he would be followed by the other dogs in descending size so that the smallest dog's tail would be wagging over the tip of my snowshoes.

Sasso would also walk with me to the main highway leading to Telluride and wait while I hitchhiked. I would invite him to sit with me, but he never did. I felt that he knew his presence would inhibit my ability to catch a lift. It was so endearing, though, to wait next to the empty highway on those cold winter afternoons and see his blue eyes and massive white and black body sitting among the red rock and green pines.

Sasso, Mingus and all of my other Ophir dog friends are gone now. Such is the ephemeral life of a dog. How wonderful it would be if they could live longer. Perhaps their shorter lives make for richer friendships. Knowing that their presence here on earth is so ephemeral, it brings us closer and more present with dogs. I hope if I do make it to heaven or a Buddha realm when I die that all the dogs of Ophir and other places will be there to greet me. Perhaps that short time in Ophir was a slice of heaven. Thich Naht Hanh, the Vietnamese monk, talks about life on earth in this way.

“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”

― Thich Nhat Hanh

My canine friends in Ophir taught me how to live this lesson better. I miss all my furry friends from the past and hope that they are all playing among mountains and forests free of porcupines, skunks, and ticks and that they never feel the pain of neglect, abandonment, or hunger. I hope one day we may all meet again for a saunter through light dappled trails smelling of sweet pine needles while listening to the wind caress the aspen trees sparkling gold in the warm autumn sun.